Commentary Magazine


Topic: Indiana Senate Primary

Primaries Show Obama 2008 is Over

Some liberals are trying to interpret the crushing defeat of six-term Republican Richard Lugar in an Indiana Republican senatorial primary as the creation of an opportunity for the Democrats to steal a GOP seat this fall. But the narrative being promoted today about rabid Tea Party extremists sacrificing another noble Republican moderate shows just how out of touch liberal theorists are with the country. Lugar was the ultimate establishment insider and President Obama’s favorite Republican when he was in the Senate. While there is something to be said for experience, this inveterate compromiser and foreign policy “realist” was a holdover from a bygone era in which members of the senatorial club thought of themselves as operating above and beyond the constraints of normal political life. Which is to say Lugar had outlived his usefulness to the people of Indiana a long time ago.

Equally foolish is the idea that the man who beat him, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, is likely to face the fate of 2010 Republican outliers like Sharon Angle in Nevada or Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, whose extremism cost their parties easy general election victories. Mourdock is an experienced office-holder whose mainstream conservative views make him a perfect match for his state and likely to cruise to victory in the fall. The Mourdock triumph as well as the victory for supporters of traditional marriage in North Carolina is also a reminder that while this year will not be a repeat of the GOP’s midterm tsunami, it is also going to be nothing like 2008 when Obama won both states.

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Some liberals are trying to interpret the crushing defeat of six-term Republican Richard Lugar in an Indiana Republican senatorial primary as the creation of an opportunity for the Democrats to steal a GOP seat this fall. But the narrative being promoted today about rabid Tea Party extremists sacrificing another noble Republican moderate shows just how out of touch liberal theorists are with the country. Lugar was the ultimate establishment insider and President Obama’s favorite Republican when he was in the Senate. While there is something to be said for experience, this inveterate compromiser and foreign policy “realist” was a holdover from a bygone era in which members of the senatorial club thought of themselves as operating above and beyond the constraints of normal political life. Which is to say Lugar had outlived his usefulness to the people of Indiana a long time ago.

Equally foolish is the idea that the man who beat him, State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, is likely to face the fate of 2010 Republican outliers like Sharon Angle in Nevada or Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, whose extremism cost their parties easy general election victories. Mourdock is an experienced office-holder whose mainstream conservative views make him a perfect match for his state and likely to cruise to victory in the fall. The Mourdock triumph as well as the victory for supporters of traditional marriage in North Carolina is also a reminder that while this year will not be a repeat of the GOP’s midterm tsunami, it is also going to be nothing like 2008 when Obama won both states.

Though one shouldn’t draw hard and fast conclusions from last night’s primaries, the results in Indiana and North Carolina and even West Virginia should not reassure Democrats. The marriage vote may have cut across party and demographic lines, and the Democratic presidential primary in West Virginia in which a felon currently serving time in federal prison won 40 percent of the vote against Obama in a two-person race tell us nothing about the way these states will vote in the fall. But even the jokey protest vote in West Virginia shows that those empty seats at the president’s campaign kickoffs last weekend are truly an indication of a decline in enthusiasm for his cause.

There’s little question that Obama has an Electoral College advantage over Republican Mitt Romney, as there are more votes to be had in solidly blue states than those that are deep red. But if Republicans are daunted by the prospect of Romney having to come close to running the table of tossup states, the results in Indiana and North Carolina reveal the GOP is well-positioned to take back both in 2012.

While Democrats were crowing about the low turnout in some Republican primaries earlier this year, the fact that more turned out to vote in a virtually uncontested GOP primary for Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin than in a competitive Democratic primary to choose his opponent in a recall election means the president ought not to make any assumptions about Wisconsin either.

As Mourdock’s Indiana victory showed, the Tea Party can’t be dismissed as a caricature of racism and extremism. It has gone mainstream because those who sympathize with it — such as the 60 percent of Republicans who turned out Lugar — are mainstream voters. While the president retains important advantages, the liberal surge fueled by an unpopular war and an economic collapse that sent him to the White House is over. Though 2012 won’t be a repeat of the GOP’s midterm massacre of Democrats, anyone who assumes that Obama can hold Indiana and North Carolina and some other traditionally Republican states he seized four years ago needs to pay better attention to last night’s returns.

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The Senate Will Survive Without Lugar

With polls showing six-term incumbent Republican Senator Richard Lugar to be a heavy underdog in his Indiana primary race with insurgent State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, many in the media are weeping bitter tears about the end of an era in Washington. After six terms in which he has increasingly come to be seen as part of the Senate furniture, it is not surprising that a likely plurality of Indiana voters are ready to turn him out. But to listen to the anguished reaction from pundits who are sympathetic to Lugar, his opponent’s supporters are nothing less than right-wing Jacobins who are sacrificing a sage statesman on the altar of extremism. But as much as that fits the mainstream media’s story line about the evil influence of the Tea Party on American politics, the truth is not quite that dramatic.

Lugar is the ultimate establishmentarian and the voice of conventional wisdom about any conceivable topic–especially foreign policy. He is also well-liked for his reputation for bipartisan cooperation. Though we are told Washington will be the poorer if there are fewer or no Lugars at all, the taxpayers as well as those sick of his knee-jerk foreign policy “realism” must be forgiven if they point out there is a difference between being the ultimate D.C. insider and the sort of politics of integrity we are told he embodies. Far from this being a case where the Tea Partiers are rolling out the guillotine for a brave voice of principle, what is going on in Indiana is merely the inevitable fate of any politician who overstays his welcome while standing for little but the continuation of business as usual on Capitol Hill.

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With polls showing six-term incumbent Republican Senator Richard Lugar to be a heavy underdog in his Indiana primary race with insurgent State Treasurer Richard Mourdock, many in the media are weeping bitter tears about the end of an era in Washington. After six terms in which he has increasingly come to be seen as part of the Senate furniture, it is not surprising that a likely plurality of Indiana voters are ready to turn him out. But to listen to the anguished reaction from pundits who are sympathetic to Lugar, his opponent’s supporters are nothing less than right-wing Jacobins who are sacrificing a sage statesman on the altar of extremism. But as much as that fits the mainstream media’s story line about the evil influence of the Tea Party on American politics, the truth is not quite that dramatic.

Lugar is the ultimate establishmentarian and the voice of conventional wisdom about any conceivable topic–especially foreign policy. He is also well-liked for his reputation for bipartisan cooperation. Though we are told Washington will be the poorer if there are fewer or no Lugars at all, the taxpayers as well as those sick of his knee-jerk foreign policy “realism” must be forgiven if they point out there is a difference between being the ultimate D.C. insider and the sort of politics of integrity we are told he embodies. Far from this being a case where the Tea Partiers are rolling out the guillotine for a brave voice of principle, what is going on in Indiana is merely the inevitable fate of any politician who overstays his welcome while standing for little but the continuation of business as usual on Capitol Hill.

Lugar is portrayed by normally sensible writers such as Peggy Noonan as the voice of reason in a town gone mad with ideologues. But as even she understands, the frustration of the GOP grass roots with people who call themselves conservatives but spend more time making nice with liberals and enabling the growth of the federal leviathan is not just a matter of Tea Party intemperance. It might be unfair to label Lugar a RINO, but to dismiss the refusal of many Republicans to bow to Lugar’s inflated Washington reputation as foolish populism says more about Washington than it does Indiana Republicans.

In the last two years as we have once again experienced the frustrations that attend to a divided government, those members of Congress who are less interested in agreement for its own sake than they are in fidelity to the ideas that they ran on have been demonized as extremists. President Obama has sought to brand GOP members who wouldn’t bow to his demand for tax increases as having put party before country, a theme the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank also uses in his hit piece on Lugar’s opponents. But the notion that government should be left to the so-called “adults” — a term that Noonan also uses to describe Lugar– is wrong.

It is true Congress must ensure the government functions, but Lugar’s fans seem to be saying the business of Washington is too important to be left in the hands of the people,  which is profoundly offensive. We have gridlock because we are currently stuck with a president who was elected in a liberal Democratic year with a House of Representatives that was swept in on a conservative Republican tide. That standoff should be resolved, one way or the other in November, as it should be, by the voters. But so long as people like Lugar, who, for all of their virtues, seem to be part of a permanent governing class, elections don’t count for much.

It is true that a Lugar defeat can be seen as part of a trend in which both parties have shed those members whose views deviate from those of their respective bases. That will lead, we are told, to politics where compromise is impossible. There is a cost to ideological politics, but there is also a price to be paid for Washington to be run by politicians whose primary loyalty is to the status quo rather than to the voters, and we have been paying for this for generations.

Compromise is a tactic, not a vision for governance. Moderation has its uses but when it becomes a faith in of itself, it has little to offer but the defense of existing institutional imperatives. The Senate will survive without its Dick Lugars. Other adults, including those who have not lost touch with the sentiments of their party’s grass roots, will replace them. The result will not be the collapse of our republic. In fact, it just might be the first step toward its salvation.

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